Master Cockfighter

Page 5 of 7

On this cool January morning, a hundred men are gathered inside, talking bloodlines and chicken feed. They are oil field workers from Midland and flea market merchants from up the road in Hobbs. They wear coveralls and camo, steel-toed shitkickers and alligator-skinned cowboy boots. Chatting above the din of the crowing roosters, they lean on the waist-high railing of the drag pits, where the fights will end and the chickens finally bow their heads in the dirt and die. At the big metal door, where trespassers are warned to stay out, a little Mexican man sits hunched over a whirring machine, sharpening the blades that will be attached to the roosters' legs. Cigarette smoke hangs above it all.

A man with watery eyes and a perpetual frown waddles over to me and fishes two black-and-white photos from his pocket. "These are from when this pit was first built," he tells me. Like so many men here, he says Ratliff taught him the secrets of chicken fighting.

"To tell you the truth, I wish he wouldn't have said anything about retiring," says a man in coveralls. "The Humane Society had a field day with that one."

A little man named Eliseo Lopez nods. "The Humane Society, they're trying to kill us."

"They're liars," someone else says.

"They're communists."

"They're terrorists."

"Your ancestors fought chickens," Lopez tells me, pointing his stubby finger into my chest. "George Washington was a cockfighter. Abraham Lincoln was a referee. It's a part of your heritage."

"You're eventually going to have the biggest revolution the United States has ever seen because people are tired of their freedoms being taken away," someone else says. "Before you know it, hunting will be illegal."

It's nearly 2 p.m., and the fights are about to start. But first, the president of the New Mexico Game Fowl Breeders Association, Ronnie Barron, has something to say. He mounts the steps of a small platform and takes a microphone. Standing a few feet above the crowd, he lays out their plight. The last year was a bad one for the organization, he says. The New Mexico legislature nearly banned cockfighting. Governor Bill Richardson, once the friend of cockfighters, is now against us, Anderson says.

"The son of a bitch," the little man says through gritted teeth. "I don't even consider him Hispanic."

But we won't go down without a fight, Barron says. Call your representatives, write a letter to Richardson, but most important, make your voice heard on the Senate floor if it comes to a vote. "This is your way of life," he says.

When he finishes, he hands the microphone to a Hispanic man, who offers the same speech in Spanish. His voice rising like a tent-revival preacher, the crowd erupts in applause and shouting as he finishes. For a few minutes, there is concerned conversation about the future of the sport and that "son of a bitch" Humane Society. And then the conversation shifts back to the business of the day, because already, the president of the Legion Club of Jal is about to call the first fight.

In the narrow hallways where the roosters are kept, there's a palpable feeling of tension. The birds might feel it, but they have no idea what they're in for.

Over the loudspeaker, the numbers of the first two competitors are called. It's a Texas schoolteacher versus a man with a shaved head. Those who haven't already moved to the main arena rush over, hoping to find a seat with a decent view.

"You ready to see your first chicken fight?" a man named Hector asks. He had been explaining the fine art of the chicken fight when the numbers were called. He is 22, from Roswell, New Mexico. He's a rookie but learning fast. Animated and quick to smile, he wears a tilted Yankees cap and a gold cross. Perhaps he is the future of the sport.

He leads me through the crowd and we find a spot to stand near the pit, a metal cage beneath four fluorescent lights. A rusty gate is opened for the handlers, who are carrying their roosters in the crook of their arms, petting them nervously. The schoolteacher kisses his rooster's head. He removes the scabbard from the curved, inch-long blade on its leg.

"Bill 'em up," the referee says. They are beautiful birds. One is an orange red; the other has a white head, a red body and bluish tail feathers.

They are brought beak to beak. Their handlers rock back and forth on their heels, letting the roosters peck at each other. The feathers around the roosters' heads, called the hackles, flare out like a fan. The referee makes two chalk lines about eight feet apart on the dirt floor. The schoolteacher stands behind one line with his bird, and his opponent takes his place behind the other. The ref gives a signal, the birds are placed on the ground, and then they are let go.

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Jesse Hyde
Contact: Jesse Hyde